When the Alan Partridge film Alpha Papa came out in 2013, Steve Coogan said the key to keeping his most famous character relevant was to make sure he evolved with the times: from being a 'little Englander' in the early 90s, Alan had become a 'cool Tory like David Cameron', down with gay marriage and the like.
There is no stronger parallel for the challenge facing Ricky Gervais as he releases David Brent: On The Road this week, the big screen follow up to The Office which concluded in 2003 with one of the greatest pieces of British television ever made: the two-part Christmas special, in which Slough's 'boss from hell' appeared to find some sort of redemption and a woman willing to accept him, crippling self-delusions and endless social faux pas and all.
Without giving too much away, it is obvious from the first scenes of Life On The Road that Brent is heading towards a similar resolution. The plot is essentially the same as the special: still 'reppin', still alone (his date from the office party is never mentioned, presumably long gone), still struggling to keep ahold of the fame bestowed on him as a fly-on-the-wall documentary star, Brent pursues his hopeless dream as a musician – this time via a tour of Reading with a band who hate him (last time he released a novelty pop single).
But if the arc of the film is perhaps a touch familiar to long standing fans of Gervais' work, it is outweighed by the sheer relief he hasn't gone in the opposite direction. Gervais, with his proud comedy principles, was never going to walk into the trap of making Brent's world 'cinematic' (let's have him stumble into a crime caper! Abroad!). If anything, Brent's life is smaller, more pitiful and harder to watch than before. In one almost unbearable scene, he has to pay his own band to have a drink with him; in another, he is bullied remorselessly by colleagues who are now his peers (at least at Wernham Hoggs he was the boss so everyone had to bite their lip). Gervais uses our affection for Brent and dials the tragedy up to levels that are, at times, quite distressing, but is smart enough to stop it short of feeling excessive or manipulative.
Similar restraint is used for Brent's inevitable redemption – his tour has one tiny, touching moment of success among endless disasters – and the writing in some of the final talking head monologues ranks among some Gervais' best and most affecting work, with more than a shade of Andy Millman's Big Brother house soliloquy at the end of Extras. Gervais has always excelled at writing (and portraying) these small moments of pathos, the brief flowering of epiphanies in the minds of his weak and misguided characters. It's cheering to see him rediscover a subtle touch after a string of films that gave too much ground to Hollywood convention.
There is still, however, the question of evolution. In 2016, does Brent feel like a character that has genuinely lived in the world since 2003, or one merely transported from it? It is here I suspect harsher critics of the film will find their target. The Office drew much of its comedy from Brent's politically incorrect attempts to be politically correct, and so it is in Life On The Road as he makes a succession of tone-deaf jokes about race and gender. The problem is that Brent is still getting it wrong in the world of 15-odd years ago, not the world of today. It would have been fun to see him trying and failing to be a gender fluid, privilege-checking 'woke' feminist man of 2016 – or at least displaying some cack-handed awareness of that world – rather than someone who still thinks it is OK to do cartoon impressions of Chinese people and parade around his 'black friend' as a novelty.
As it happens, the friend – a young rapper called Dom played by comedian Doc Brown – is easily the most interesting and well-drawn character outside Brent himself, the one that keeps Life On The Road from becoming either too bleak or too reminiscent of The Office. Much of Brent's behavior is explained through the irritated but generous appraisal of his unlikely sidekick, who at one point astutely describes him as the 'kid at school you can't stand but who owns the ball, so you have no choice but to play with'. The interplay between the two is one of the film's highlights and Dom's talent and ambition is a subplot that provides some balance and relief from the relentless Brent cringe-fest.
All in all, the task of transferring a cherished sitcom character to the big screen is one with terrible precedents, saddled with the inevitability that hardcore fans will be disappointed with the compromises that must be made. In one and a half hours compared to seven, jokes must be broadened, story arcs truncated and supporting characters – such as Brent's office love interest – will and do come out feeling underwritten.
But it is to Gervais' credit that against these overwhelming odds the screening I attended was full of laughter, with more than one quiet tear shed on my row alone. After so long, it felt good to be with Brent again and wrenching to leave him alone with his almost-happy ending. "Life is full of beautiful surprises," he says at one point "that make it worth putting up with all the shit". The beautiful surprise here is that Life On The Road feels as close to the magic of the TV series as anyone could reasonably expect, and like The Office, I was left with the overwhelming desire to rewind the tape and start again.